Wednesday afternoon, the nation’s spy master visited MacDill Air Force Base to talk to the nation’s top commando.
Intelligence sharing was high on the agenda.
As the situation in Ukraine shows, while the U.S. enjoys a significant intelligence advantage over its allies, getting information into their hands comes with challenge and potential risk.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper “came to my office yesterday and we went to the wayback machine,” said Adm. William McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, during his keynote speech Thursday morning to the GEOINT 2013* Symposium at the Tampa Convention Center.
McRaven said he and Clapper talked about an “intelligence fusion center” for NATO forces in Afghanistan set up five or six years ago in Kabul.
“At the time, frankly, we were limited to sharing with the ‘Five Eyes’ partners,” he said, referring to our English speaking allies Australia, Canada, Great Britain and New Zealand. “I had a very aggressive colonel running the fusion cell. He said, ‘sir, the problem is we have another 15 partners...’ He said ‘we have lost the trust factor with our allies.”
Working with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Socom came up with a system allowing 22 partner nations to access a layer of U.S. intelligence.
“It was a sea change in how our allies view our willingness to support them,” said McRaven.
But even that was not enough.
With one of his goals to shift the burden for defense on partner nations and stopping conflicts before they start, McRaven wants even more intelligence in the hands of friends.
“They need to see what I am seeing,” he said. “Well, that took a little bit of culture change.”
However, working with Iraqi and Afghan partners since assuming command of Socom in August, 2011, “not once, doing 10 mission a night, did they ever compromise us.”
Not that McRaven offers unwavering trust.
“Trust and verify,” he said, taking a page out of President Ronald Reagan’s playbook. “I told all of them going in, ‘do we monitor you? Of course we do. I monitor all my people in a combat zone as well.’”
McRaven said he is trying to find the “sweet spot” of not compromising security while ensuring “the operational intelligence we are giving them is much better than it is now, which in a lot of cases is not much better than what you see on CNN.”
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The situation in Ukraine is a prime example of the complexities of intelligence sharing.
As Russia strengthens its hold on Crimea and threatens further incursions west, the commander of U.S. European Command, Gen. Philip Breedlove would like to see more satellite imagery and other information in the hands of the Ukrainians, according to The Daily Beast.
But with Ukraine so closely aligned historically and culturally with Russia, U.S. intelligence leaders are concerned about that information winding up in the hands of the Russians, said Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Intelligence Integration Robert Cardillo.
There are several levels of risk to consider, said Cardillo, the man who puts together the Presidential Daily Brief on intelligence that President Barack Obama reads every morning.
One of the risks, he said, “is people we don’t want to get that intelligence will get that intelligence.”
There’s another risk to consider.
“What do we think the Ukrainians will do with that intelligence?” he said. “And there’s two real worries, On the one hand you could give them intelligence that could cause them to be over-alarmed, or overconfident. They may overreact to the intel, either positively or negatively.”
It’s one thing to share intelligence, said McRaven. It’s another to protect how that information is derived. The leak of NSA data collection information by former contractor Edward Snowden only exacerbates that concern, said McRaven
“We do have to assume some risk,” he said. “Most of the folks we deal with don’t care about the sources and methods. It isn’t how we got the intelligence. So when we get back to the Snowden case, a lot of that was how did we derive that intelligence, not necessarily what that intelligence was. The concern among intelligence professionals is that we’ve got to be very careful how we put those sources and methods into a position where our allies can’t figure that piece out.”
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There is one risk McRaven is not willing to assume — the well-being of his troops spread out across 84 nations and their families.
It is a force, he said, under pressure, and dealing with that is “my No. 1 priority.”
“The last two years have been the highest rate of suicides we have had in the special operations community and this year I am afraid we are on the path to break that,” said McRaven. “And although suicides alone are not an indication of the health of the force, they are a component I have to look at. More importantly than that, as I go around to meet with the young spouses and talk to the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, and my command sergeant major and his wife go out, there is a lot of angst. There is a lot of pressure out there. My soldiers have been fighting for 12-13 years in hard combat. Hard combat. And anybody who has spent any time in this war has been changed by it. It’s that simple.
Just how much is yet to be known, said McRaven.
“I don’t think we know what effects are going to happen,” he said. “I don’t think that will begin to manifest itself for another year or so, maybe two, three years.
McRaven said the treatment of troops and veterans has changed for the positive since 1977 when he joined the Navy. But it’s still not enough.
“We didn’t do a very good job as a nation of taking care of veterans coming back from Vietnam,” he said. “We are not going to make that mistake this time around. We are going to put everything we can to making sure we are taking care of these kids and their families. So that becomes my No. 1 priority.”
More than a thousand intelligence and military professionals and defense contractors in the audience stood up and gave McRaven the symposium’s loudest round of applause.
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